The story behind this film is rather complicated, and the signs of this complexity are most obvious in these opening chapters. Back in 1974 John Heyman founded the Genesis Project, also known as the New Media Bible (not in the sense New Media means today). He wanted to film the entire Bible, and began work in 1976, but only got as far as making chapters 1 and 2 of Luke before he realised he was going to need a lot more money. So Heyman decided to team up with Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright and his organisation would help fund Heyman's project and in return he'd make them a shorter Jesus film that could be used as an evangelistic tool. The film was to become known as The Jesus Film and it was released in 1979. Heyman figured the film would help promote his project as well as fund it. John Dart has written a more detailed account on the back story to this project and that film, and there's a 2003 thread at Arts and Faith where Peter Chattaway and I discuss how the two projects relate.
What's strange is that the two productions have different nativity scenes. By the time the movie came to being released, the films of the first couple of chapters of Luke had been around for three years. In the meantime the actress that played Mary was now unavailable and Heyman decided not to use the new footage to spruce up the start of the word-for-word film.
The series starts with Luke on a hill reading from a scroll. We get an establishing shot of Zechariah and Elizabeth so we know who he is in the following scene at the temple. Both Zechariah and Mary are visited by an angel with a big afro-style hair cut. This is shot quite effectively with the light behind him in order to give the impression of a halo.
One of the curious aspects of this film is that, in contrast to the later Visual Bible film, it appears to be entirely narrated. What's even more unusual is that we can here that the film also features a background track in Aramaic. So Mel Gibson was not exactly breaking new ground by using Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ despite what some people claimed at the time.
These comments aren't so much a formal review as just some extended notes on the film as I watch it, so I'll just chuck in a minor observation here that when Jesus is presented in the temple and meets Simeon and Anna, we also see Zechariah. This links nicely to the next scene where Zechariah's son, a particularly scraggly John the Baptist, in baptising people in the River Jordan. We see Jesus baptised, and an actual dove land on his shoulder. According to Brian Deacon (Jesus) this scene was horrendous to film as it involved him standing in cold water for hours whilst they tried to entice the dove to land on his bird-seed covered shoulder. That anecdote however does serve to highlight a subtle change that Luke makes to Mark (and Matthew's text). Whilst in all three gospels the dove is only a simile - the Holy Spirit descends "as a dove" - only Luke stresses that this happens "in bodily form". In the other three gospels the implication is that this is imagery, rather than an actual bird.
One of the biggest hurdles in filming Luke is the genealogy. True it's not as potentially problematic as in Matthew, where it's right at the beginning and so likely to scare some people off before they even get started. Nevertheless it's very easy to make such a scene deathly boring. What Heyman and Sykes do is narrate the list of Jesus' ancestors over an action shot of him walking. In contrast to the Visual Bible version only rarely do we see "Luke" and as this is our first introduction to Jesus and he is almost marching through a rugged terrain, it's actually fairly engaging.
Jesus' destination is the desert where he will be tempted. The devil is represented by a snake, which, it could be argued, is perhaps the best physical approach to portraying Satan in a Jesus film. It's not time bound, or so open to interpretation as many other approaches. That said I don't think I can recall a film which portrays this as all being in Jesus' mind, although Scorsese's take might be interpreted that way. The latter two temptations are depited by frosting in an inset of relevant images. It turns out that these are actually taken from the model of Jerusalem and the temple from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. As I've been using the stills of this model found at the IMJ's website it was strange to see the model pop up so obviously in the film. It's a good way of making this sequence more interesting at a very low cost however.
One of the best scenes in the Jesus film also occurs in these opening four chapters: Jesus delivering his gospel manifesto and his resulting rejection at Nazareth. I made some comments on this scene a few weeks back which I'll reproduce here for ease:
This film is an adaptation of Luke so it's not surprising to find that it's the one that most closely corresponds to that gospel. We see Jesus sitting on the floor and covering his head and kissing the scriptures before reading them. The wording here is pretty much as per the gospel. It even includes Jesus being brought to the cliff edge though whilst the narrator describes Jesus walking through the middle of the crowd we only see him walk away from them.This film differs however in one crucial way. Whereas in the Jesus film an audience member links Jesus' words with a claim to be the messiah, in this production no such claim is made. The narrator sticks to the text which, in fact, doesn't link Jesus' declaration to a claim to be the messiah . In the text, Jesus causes an uproar not because of any messianic claim, but because he anticipates his rejection by the Nazarenes (and, by implication, the Jewish people in general) and predicts God working amongst the Gentiles instead.
The tape ends at the end of chapter 4 with the healings of a demon-possessed man, Simon Peter's mother-in-law and the crowds that come to Jesus when words of these miracles gets around.
(This production is only available on VHS, and it's pretty rare, although there is one copy for sale at jesusonscreen.com).
Labels: Jesus (1979)